Why the iPhone upgrade cycle is lengthening

I’ve always lagged behind in the iPhone cycle. Until recently, I had an iPhone 6 — which I’d used for years. Because it was slowing up, I bought a used iPhone 7 Plus, largely because of its camera, and expect to run that for years. iPhones — like all smartphones — have reached the top part of the S curve, and we’re now at the point where improvements are incremental and relatively small.

So this advice from the NYT’s Brian X. Chen makes good sense:

Apple’s newest mobile operating system, iOS 13, will work only on iPhones from 2015 (the iPhone 6S) and later. So if you have an iPhone that is older than that, it is worth upgrading because once you can no longer update the operating system, some of your apps may stop working properly.

For those with younger iPhones, there are ways to get more mileage out of your current device. While the newest iPhones have superb battery life — several hours longer than the last generation — a fresh battery in your existing gadget costs only $50 to $70 and will greatly extend its life.

If you have the iPhone 6S from 2015 and the iPhone 7 from 2016, the iPhone 11s are speedier, with camera improvements and bigger displays. That makes an upgrade nice to have but not a must-have. But if you spent $1,000 on an iPhone X two years ago, then hold off. The iPhone 11s just aren’t enough of an innovation leap to warrant $700-plus on a new smartphone.

If you wait another year or two, you will most likely be rewarded with that jump forward. That might be an iPhone that works with fast 5G cellular networks, or a smartphone that can wirelessly charge an Apple Watch.

I don’t believe that stuff about charging the Watch, but otherwise this is spot on.

Zero-days and the iPhone

This morning’s Observer column:

Whenever there’s something that some people value, there will be a marketplace for it. A few years ago, I spent a fascinating hour with a detective exploring the online marketplaces that exist in the so-called “dark web” (shorthand for the parts of the web you can only get to with a Tor browser and some useful addresses). The marketplaces we were interested in were ones in which stolen credit card details and other confidential data are traded.

What struck me most was the apparent normality of it all. It’s basically eBay for crooks. There are sellers offering goods (ranges of stolen card details, Facebook, Gmail and other logins etc) and punters interested in purchasing same. Different categories of these stolen goods are more or less expensive. (The most expensive logins, as I remember it, were for PayPal). But the funniest thing of all was that some of the marketplaces operated a “reputation” system, just like eBay’s. Some vendors had 90%-plus ratings for reliability etc. Some purchasers likewise. Others were less highly regarded. So, one reflected, there really is honour among thieves.

But it’s not just credit cards and logins that are valuable in this underworld…

Read on

Farewell iTunes, hello Music

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday, at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the company’s head of software engineering, Craig Federighi, announced that it was terminating iTunes. In one way, the only surprising thing was that Apple had taken so long to reach that decision. It’s been obvious for years that iTunes had become baroquely bloated, a striking anomaly for a company that prides itself on elegant and functional design. So the decision to split the software into three functional units – dealing with music, podcasts and TV apps – seemed both logical and long overdue. But for internet users d’un certain âge (including this columnist) the announcement triggered reflections on personal and tech history.

There’s been music on the internet for a long time. The advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s meant that recorded music went from being analogue to digital. But CD music files were vast – a single CD came in at about 700MB – and for most people, the network was slow. So transferring music from one location to another was not a practical proposition. But then, in 1993, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany came up with a way of shrinking audio files by a factor of 10 or more, so that a three-minute music track could be reduced to 3MB without much perceptible loss in quality…

Read on

Size matters. (But so does speed)

Although I’ve been a relatively early-adopter (aka sucker) of tech gadgets for much of my adult life, I’ve generally been relatively slow to upgrade my mobile phones. One factor was that I moved from being on a mobile contract to buying the phones outright and choosing the mobile data deal that suited me best. (I make very few voice calls.) I had an iPhone 4 for years, and when I eventually moved to an iPhone 6 I kept that for years too, reviving it a year ago with a new battery. (It’s the one on the right in the picture.) But in recent years it’s become sluggish and I began to find it increasingly hard on my ageing eyesight. I resisted the temptation to move to an iPhone X for various reasons: the outrageous prices, for one; and, more importantly, I don’t like Face ID and find fingerprint authentication very convenient for the few security-conscious services that I use.

So I had more or less resigned myself to soldiering on with the 6. After all, it did the jobs I needed it to do. And if I needed to read, there was always my iPad. But then I had a conversation with a friend who’d also had an iPhone 6 for years and whose circumstances had recently changed. He’s been spending a lot of time in hospital in the last six months, and didn’t want to be lugging around a laptop, or indeed even an iPad. He’d found, though, that it’s very difficult to run a busy life on such a small phone. So he bought a used iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon.

Next time we met, he extolled the virtues of the bigger format. It made it much easier to browse and to use web-forms, he reported. He found it easier to keep on top of his (formidable) email load — which he would normally have managed on a laptop. And the phone was quicker — a lot quicker — than his iPhone 6.

I followed his example and bought an iPhone 7 Plus on Amazon. My conclusion: it was good advice. The phone came with a year’s guarantee. It has a much faster processor. Web browsing is easier. The camera is a lot better. My email response rate has improved. I make fewer typing mistakes. And I’m using my iPad less. There are still things it’s useless for — blogging, for example. But overall, it’s been a revelation. It’ll do me for a few years, I think.

Peak Apple? No: just peak smartphone

This morning’s Observer column:

On 2 January, in a letter to investors, Tim Cook revealed that he expected revenues for the final quarter of 2018 to be lower than originally forecast.

Given that most of Apple’s revenues come from its iPhone, this sent the tech commentariat into overdrive – to the point where one level-headed observer had to point out that the sky hadn’t fallen: all that had happened was that Apple shares were down a bit. And all this despite the fact that the other bits of the company’s businesses (especially the watch, AirPods, services and its retail arm) were continuing to do nicely. Calmer analyses showed that the expected fall in revenues could be accounted for by two factors: the slowdown in the Chinese economy (together with some significant innovations by the Chinese internet giant WeChat); and the fact that consumers seem to be hanging on to their iPhones for longer, thereby slowing the steep upgrade path that had propelled Apple to its trillion-dollar valuation.

What was most striking, though, was that the slowdown in iPhone sales should have taken journalists and analysts by surprise…

Read on

The real significance of the Apple slide

Apart from the fact that the Chinese economy seems to be faltering and collateral damage from Trump’s ‘trade war’ what the slide signals is that the smartphone boom triggered by Apple with the iPhone is ending because we’re reaching a plateau and apparently there’s no New New Thing in sight. At any rate, that’s Kara Swisher’s take on it:

The last big innovation explosion — the proliferation of the smartphone — is clearly ending. There is no question that Apple was the center of that, with its app-centric, photo-forward and feature-laden phone that gave everyone the first platform for what was to create so many products and so much wealth. It was the debut of the iPhone in 2007 that spurred what some in tech call a “Cambrian explosion,” a reference to the era when the first complex animals appeared. There would be no Uber and Lyft without the iPhone (and later the Android version), no Tinder, no Spotify.

Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.

Yep. Situation normal, in other words.

The feeding frenzy about the drop in Apple’s share price

I find the media obsession with Apple’s valuation really tiresome. That’s not just because I don’t own any shares but also because it suggests that mainstream journalists haven’t been paying attention. Way back in August, for example, Bloomberg’s Tim Culpin published a very perceptive piece under the headline “Dark Clouds Gather as Tech Stockpiles Hit Pre-Crisis Levels” which made it crystal clear that there was a slowdown coming.

But even if journalists don’t pay much attention to supply chains you’d have thought that common sense and everyday experience would have taught them that the iPhone picture was changing. I’ve lost count of the number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are happily still using their four- or five-year-old iPhones. The devices still work perfectly for their purposes. Sure, the camera isn’t as good as the one on the iPhone XS, but it’s still good enough for everyday use. My trusty old iPhone 6 is still more than adequate for my purposes. In fact, since the last couple of IOS updates and a replacement battery, it’s as good as it ever was. And one of the things that would stop me upgrading is that I find its fingerprint recognition much more convenient for secure online activities than the much-touted face recognition in the newer iPhones would be. I’ve been an early adopter and a gadget freak for as long as I can remember. So if I’m not upgrading, then must be lots more like me.

Could it be that most mainstream tech journalists always have the latest iPhones because their employers pay for them? And so they have fallen into the delusion of thinking that they’re normal consumers?

Apple, the App Store and monopoly

This morning’s Observer column:

Because Apple has always specialised in control freakery and doesn’t allow anybody else to use its iOS platform without prior approval, the App Store was from the beginning owned and controlled by Apple. If you wanted to create an app for the iPhone (and later the iPad), it had to be approved by Apple and sold on the App Store. And if a developer wanted to charge for the app, then Apple took a 30% cut on the price.

So, in relation to the App Store, Apple is definitely a monopolist. The question underlying the supreme court hearing was: is it an abusive monopolist? And if so, are customers of the App Store entitled to damages? Does the operation of the store give rise to consumer harm and thereby trigger redress under US antitrust law?

The case goes back to 2011…

Read on

Tech stasis and planned obsolescence

Like most of my peers in the tech-commentary business, I generally tune into the twice-yearly events at which senior Apple executives reveal the latest wonders to emerge from the creative imagination of Jony Ive. Part of the entertainment value of these gabfests is seeing grown billionaires talking like teen tech worshippers (everything is ‘incredible’ or even ‘fantastic’; the company exists to help customers to enhance their innate ‘creativity’ with new products that we will all ‘just love’, etc). But usually, buried in the superheated hoopla there’s the odd genuinely interesting new thing.

But this week’s event — which was held in New York rather than San Francisco (itself a first, I think) — was strangely dull. There’s a new MacBook Air, but actually it’s hard to see why it’s needed. The new one has a Retina screen, but I can’t see why anyone would get excited just about that when the underlying hardware is much the same as before. And, overall, Apple’s laptop lineup looks strangely incoherent. The two big announcements, to judge from the presentations, were a substantially enhanced Mac Mini and a new iPad Pro. The new Mini is welcome because for many of us it’s the most useful little workhorse that Apple has ever produced. And the new iPad is clearly a a serious upgrade of a product that’s already way ahead of the competition.

But here’s the rub. I’ve had an iPad Pro since the product was first launched, and it’s the most useful — and usable — device I’ve ever owned. In combination with the Apple Pencil it has entirely replaced the paper notebooks that I’ve always used up to now. It goes everywhere with me, does exactly what I need a tablet to do, and does it very well. So no matter how fancy the new iPad ( and its enhanced Pencil) is, I have no rational reason to consider upgrading.

(And much the same applies to all the other Apple kit I own and use on a daily basis. My four year old MacBook Pro is still a terrific workhorse. My iPhone 6 has been re-energised by a new battery and IoS12. And the watch does what I want it to do, even if it could use a longer battery life.)

These big Apple events are often — and justly — ridiculed for being just revivalist meetings for the Church of Apple. Tim Cook & Co are always preaching to the choir. And, since I’m a long-term Apple user, I could be regarded as one of the above. But if even a hardened user can find no reason to upgrade, what’s the point of all the hoopla?

My friend Charles Arthur — he of the wonderful Overspill and an acute observer of these things — thinks that people like me were not the intended audience for this week’s event. It was, he wrote in an email, “one of those events where they’re not speaking to people who already have them – it’s those who haven’t found a need to cross the gap to doing more work on the iPad. USB-C would be interesting to quite a lot of photographers, perhaps.”

Perhaps. But maybe we’ve arrived at what Charles calls — “a sort of tech stasis”. Many of the things we have are now Good Enough, and so despite Moore’s Law and the wonders of computational photography, etc. we don’t need to upgrade them every year, or every two years.

If that’s indeed what’s happening, then what are the implications for tech companies that are hooked on planned obsolescence to a degree that even General Motors in its heyday couldn’t dream of?

A picture is worth a trillion operations

This morning’s Observer column:

If you’re a keen photographer (which this columnist is) one of the things you prize most is a strange property called bokeh. It’s the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the parts of an image that are not of central interest – the way a lens renders out-of-focus points of light. You often see it in great portraits: the subject’s eyes are razor-sharp but the – potentially distracting – background is fuzzy.

In the era when all photography was analogue, the only way to get good bokeh was to use lenses that produced narrow depth of field at wide apertures. Since the optical performance of most lenses decreased at such apertures, that meant that serious photographers faced a trade-off: their lust for bokeh involved compromising on overall image quality. And the only way round that was to spend money on lenses of complex design and exceedingly high optical quality. Neither of these came cheap: a photo-buff of my acquaintance, for example, recently laid out a small fortune for a Leica Noctilux f0.95 aspherical lens, which, its manufacturer claims, provides “unique bokeh”. (At a retail price of £9,100 it jolly well ought to.)

Enter Apple, which was once a struggling computer company…

Read on